Beauty Underwater

Sadly, my euphoria that we as family struck gold at the beach has proven to be premature. What seemed to be most certainly a deposit of the valuable mineral was more or less a product of lighting, water, and lack of actual knowledge on the part of the participants. Hence, I will not be retiring to Maui as originally planned, and instead will continue on with this blog of psychology in everyday life.

photo-1463099843411-206f505c28bbOne of our family’s favourite beaches has recently been taken over by rocks. While initially they strike me as somewhat unwelcome compared to the lovely soft sand that I’m accustomed to caressing my feet, my children have been entranced by scoping these geological artifacts out for treasures. They are beautiful. With such a wide variety of minerals in them, the stones we find are a reminder of the exquisite diversity in nature. With the exception of a few sharp and pointy ones that always end up under my feet as I’m carrying a caravan of goods to the beach, most of them have been smoothed out over years of gentle wave action. Others show the scars of being shaped by heat and pressure and impact.

What we’ve discovered in recent weeks is that these rocks look remarkably different when submerged in water than they do a few minutes later when they’ve been placed on our towels and given an opportunity to dry off. Colors and patterns that were present under water soon vanish. Others change appearance completely when dry.

It amazes me how something could appear so different based on such a simple change. What looked like treasures to us only moments ago, now seem like plain stones, not worthy of being hauled back to the campsite let alone carted all the way home.

As my daughters and I engaged in our meticulous review process regarding which stones to keep and which to toss back in the lake, it struck me that we are a lot like those stones.

Most of us seem pretty unremarkable. Few of us appear to be the kind of thing someone else would treasure. Somewhere in our growing up years the notions we were given in school about being special and unique like snowflakes begins to feel like propaganda. Others might be special but not us. If other people saw us for who we really are, they would know how ordinary and flawed we really are, and probably toss us back into the waves.

And so we live lives of quiet desperation, trying to distinguish ourselves enough to be noticed and valued by at least one other person, while avoiding standing out too much that we’d be held up to scrutiny and discovered as completely commonplace. Like Emmet in the Lego movie we feel as if being considered special, or chosen for something important must be a case of mistaken identity.

Submerging these stones in water gave my daughters and I a new lens with which to see colors and patterns that were otherwise obscured. When seen in the shallow water of the beach and the sunlight overhead we noticed beauty that was otherwise lost.

I wonder if we cannot often see goodness, kindness, and even a glimmer of the divine in each other because we lack the right viewing conditions or lenses to see it. It’s not just water that brings out new beauty in stones – check out these photos of sand (which is very small particles of rock and shell) under a microscope if you want to be dazzled at how a different lens shows new beauty.

All of this thinking about lenses and perspective reminds me of one of the reasons why I like being a psychologist. It’s the best seat in the house to observe all of the amazing good in people. Most people who ask me how I do what I do for a living assume that the increased focus of my work will only bring clarity to the ugliness of humanity. But that’s only part of the story. All of the beauty, resilience, sacrifice, endurance, wisdom, and love
that humans are capable of are also brought into brilliant clarity in psychotherapy. The context of therapy brings all this beauty and goodness into focus mostly because the role of the therapist is one defined by compassion. But just as you don’t have to be a limo driver to drive a car, you don’t have to be a therapist to practice intentionally regarding others through lenses of compassion or mercy. The professional context can help you practice, but it’s not required.

And it’s not just viewing others with compassion; we need to see ourselves from this perspective too. Ordinary – we might be. Find us buried in the sand, parched and dry, with a whole bunch of other similarly nondescript stones (or humans), and it’s pretty easy to conclude that not only are we not much to look at, but there’s not much difference between us.

But when we view ourselves and others through a different set of eyes; such as compassion or empathy, entirely new aspects of human beauty are set before us. Flecks of gold shine through. Our unique selves, with all of the scars of being formed can be seen.

It turns out in my episodes at the beach that I actually have stumbled upon great riches. Not gold in the material sense of wealth, but a richness of life that comes with realizing that people, like stones, can be seen from a perspective that reveals their true beauty and character. A true fortune can be accumulated by learning to see with the heart rather than just the eyes. Best of all it’s available to all of us. We can begin to recognize that within the context of the unremarkable exists treasures beyond mere perception. We don’t have to distinguish ourselves. We already are extraordinary just by being human.


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